Tell a friend about this article
  Sines & Cosines

Journey to the Center of the Earth

Click on map to see the detail of Jerusalem
Click on map for detail of Jerusalem

A new study of world values puts Israel smack dab in the middle.

by David Holzel

There is something comforting about those pre-modern maps of the world, particularly the one in which the Holy Land sits in the center like the eye of a daisy, surrounded by three petals marked Europe, Asia and Africa. Jerusalem was the navel of the world then, the meeting place of heaven and earth, the fountain through which God spread creation.

"Jerusalem is the navel of the world; the land is fruitful above others, like another paradise of delights," Pope Urban said as he was drumming up support for the First Crusade, to slaughter Jews and Muslims and conquer the Holy Land.

Earlier, a midrash stated: "Eretz Yisrael is the navel of the world, and Jerusalem is its center, and the Bet ha-Mikdash [the Temple] is at the center of Jerusalem, and the Holy of Holies is at its center, and the Holy Ark is at the center of the Holy of Holies, and in front of it is the Foundation Stone on which the world was founded."

You knew where you stood in those days. Then the modern age began and mapmakers started drawing the world according to how it appeared physically, rather than allegorically. Now, a University of Michigan political scientist has developed a world map, whose arrangement is based on the values of 81 societies. In a post-modern irony, Professor Ronald Inglehart’s map puts Israel back in the center.

One value Inglehart looks at is religiosity. He places the religious spectrum along the vertical or north-south axis of the map—the farther "south" a society is, the more traditional; the farther "north" the more secular or "rational" as Inglehart terms it.

The horizontal, or east-west axis, measures values related to quality of life. The farther west a society is, the greater its concern for basic survival—food and shelter. The farther east, the greater the concern for self-expression and equal rights.

Professor Ronald Inglehart’s values map from the World Values Survey

Most of the ex-Soviet bloc countries are clustered in the upper left, or northwest, corner of the map. Russia, Bulgaria and Ukraine fall on the rational end of the religious axis, a holdover from the official secularism of the communist era. Reflecting the region’s poor, corrupt economies, these societies are huddled at the basic survival end of the horizontal quality-of-life axis.

Protestant Europe occupies the upper right, or northeast, corner of the map. These are countries low on religion and high on self-expression and equal rights. Scandinavia is the most extreme. Because of their stable welfare societies, Inglehart says, "In Scandinavia, they don’t need God."

They do need God in the unstable southwest quarter of the map—where survival and religion are the strongest values. That’s where much of Africa, the Middle East and South and West Asia are. Running like a column through the center of the survival vs. quality of life spectrum is Confucian/East Asia, in the far rational north, then Catholic Europe and finally Latin America at the religious southern end.

Sitting like a mole in the center of the face of Catholic Europe—practically in the center of the world—is Israel. What’s it doing there?

"Israel has a lot of centrist dimensions," Inglehart says. "It looks like a Mediterranean country in many ways." Some of Israel’s closest neighbors on Inglehart’s map are Spain, Italy and Greece. "It’s like a southern European country, but certainly not Roman Catholic. Culturally, it is not a Middle Eastern country"—all of which have much more religious societies with lower standards of living than Israel.

Israel: A Hebrew-speaking Portugal?

"Israel is a unique country. You might expect it to be way out at an extreme point, but in fact it looks like other countries."

Still, "it is the only Jewish country, and it has the highest per-capita defense effectiveness of any country."

The late, unlamented Meir Kahane used to speak dismissively of Israel’s secular democracy by calling the Jewish state "a Hebrew-speaking Portugal." It turns out that the Kahane, as in so many of his extremist pronouncements, overstated his case. A Hebrew-speaking Italy, maybe, according to Inglehart’s map of the world: A society half secular and half religious, whose citizens spend about half their energy on sustaining life and the other half concerned with the rights of self-expression and civic equality.

Portugal, it turns out, is much more religious, with a slight more emphasis on survival than wealthier Israel and Italy.

Positively Like Croatia

If Kahane had truly been prophetic, he would have predicted that Israel would become a Hebrew-speaking Croatia. That part of the former Yugoslavia—a giddy participant in the mass expulsions during the Balkan Wars of the 1990s (an August 1995 Croatian offensive drove some 100,000 Serbs from their homes in Croatia)—is Israel’s main contender for the navel of the world. The two countries are a fingernail’s width apart on Inglehart’s map.

Croatia appears on the edge of the ex-communist sphere and within Catholic Europe—at the halfway point between religious and secular, and between survival and quality of life.

How did Israel get this unlikely twin? "Well, they’re not similar sorts of countries in their histories," he says. "The fact is that both countries are middling on survival. Israel has tremendous security problems, but it is prosperous. Croatia comes out of the communist experience and the civil war there pushed it toward the middle."

What separates the two countries is the line Inglehart draws between the 22 countries with a per capita GNP of over $15,000 and everyone else. Israel is inside the line—it stretches out to include the Jewish state like a questionably drawn congressional district—and Croatia is out. So are Greece and Spain. Inglehart’s research reflects what Israel-watchers have said for years: It’s the toughest prosperous country in the world to live in.

To build the body of data for his World Values study, Inglehart carried out four surveys between 1981 and 2002. They "represent over 85 percent of the world’s population in 81 societies," Inglehart wrote in the fall 2003 issue of the University of Michigan’s LSA magazine.

If the political scientist has been surprised by anything, it is that the "world is as coherent as it is," he says. 

The wealthier nations are the most secular; the poorest are the most religious. Of the wealthy nations, the United States and Ireland stand out as unusually religious societies, another surprise, according to Inglehart. He suspects that Ireland retains its strong religious character as a nationalist reaction to centuries of British colonial rule.

Navel of the World

Jerusalem forms the center of the world map, from a woodcut made in 1581 by Heinrich Bünting, a theologian who lived in Hanover.

For more on Bünting and his allegorical maps, go  here and here.

For more on Professor Ronald Inglehart, click here.

return to top of page

An English-speaking Poland

As for the United States, it was founded by religious dissenters. "They gave up relatively comfortable lives in Europe to come here. It was a big commitment." And subsequent waves of immigrants haven’t diluted American society’s basic religiosity.

It’s part of the matrix of American culture, he says. "Just as the English language was transmitted to the non-English-speaking immigrant population, a less visible aspect of the culture—religiosity—was transmitted."

To paraphrase Meir Kahane: Religiously, the United States is an English-speaking Poland.

Of American ethnic and religious groups, American Jews cluster in the "northeast"—"They tend to be relatively secular and high on self-expression of values. But they are more American than Jewish."

Israel, more religious and survival-conscious, is much closer to the center of the world, a position it occupied for centuries on those antique maps. From the center, the Jewish state can more easily be a light unto the nations. But being in the center also means you’re middling. That’s a major constraint on accomplishing anything big.

If they’re doing any similar navel gazing in Croatia, then they know just what I mean.

Copyright © 2004 by David Holzel